By Naomi Cahill and Tracy McDannald
FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — In the time leading up to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, one swimmer had officials buzzing.
No way, the qualifying times couldn’t possibly be right.
Jonathan Pierce seems to have that “wow” effect — whether it’s his talent in the water or penchant for all things Disney. Seriously, throw out a movie title and he will tell you the date it was released and the voices behind the main characters.
As for his skills as a swimmer, the one gold and three silver medals by week’s end matched the hype:
- 200-meter freestyle: 2:12.14 – GOLD
- High-performance 100-meter individual medley: 1:10.37 – SILVER
- High-performance 100-meter freestyle: 59.41 seconds – SILVER
- 4×100-meter freestyle relay: 5:04.31 – SILVER
It was in that final race he anchored Special Olympics Olympics Southern California and moved the team from fourth to second place on his performance.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Lisa Koskovich, one of his three teammates in the relay. “He’s almost like a shark catching its prey.”
Even before he learned how to swim, Jonny was a natural in the water. The Torrance native would eventually evolve into a fierce competitor.
As a 5-year-old, Jonny would jump into the deep end of the pool and just float comfortably with his ears submerged. He would stay afloat until someone would have to tow him to the pool wall so he could climb out. Although it seemed strange to his parents at first, they would later learn that this was actually a therapeutic time for Jonny, who has autism.
“He just liked the water. It was just a comfort thing for him,” said Jonny’s father, Tim Pierce. “Having his ears underwater muffled all the sounds that were bothering him.”
Jonny’s confidence in the water is what allowed him to excel during his Saturday afternoon swim lessons when he got older.
“Learning to swim is easier when you’re not fearful,” Tim said.
His confidence has developed into a passion for swimming, which has led him to swim on several local teams, such as his high school’s junior and varsity team during his freshman year, La Mirada club and master swim teams, and in 2010 he started with Special Olympics Southern California.
Tim wondered how challenging the competition at SOSC would be for Jonny since he was used to competing at such a high level. As soon as he won a medal at his first competition, Tim saw how much it meant for his son to be recognized and awarded on a podium. Any questions then went away.
“There are some great athletes here that challenge him and he challenges them,” Tim said.
“At any level, I am a Dad and a coach. I am proud.”
Jonny participates year-round in Special Olympics, including sports such as golf and volleyball. He also is a certified Special Olympics swim coach and teaches a children’s swim team every Saturday. Jonny leads by example; whenever the team learns a new stroke or is required to do drills, he is there to demonstrate the lesson or drill.
Looking ahead, Jonny has lofty goals and a drive to make his dream come true. He hopes to qualify for and compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Initially, the Pierce family thought that the Paralympics were only for athletes with physical disabilities. However, after some research, they learned that one of the 14 classes in the Paralympics included intellectual disabilities.
He was inspired to compete in the 2020 Games while watching the track and field trials for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. That is where he and his family saw future U.S. gold medalist Mikey Brannigan and learned that he was autistic, just like Jonny.
Jonny was a member of the 2017 U.S Para-Swimming Emerging Team. Since swimming his first meet in summer of 2016, Jonny has set 25 American records — two just this week in the 100-meter individual medley and 100-meter freestyle at USA Games, according to coach Leslie Runnels-Stover — in class S14, designated for individuals with intellectual disabilities. In October 2016, Jonny competed in the California Classic U.S. Paralympics swim meet at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, where he broke seven American records out of nine events in just that weekend.
If he qualifies for the U.S. Paralympics swim team, Jonny would be a part of an elite group of athletes and would make him the first intellectually impaired man to swim in the Paralympics. However, it is still a long way from Tokyo and there are still standards that he must meet. For instance, Jonny’s 200-meter freestyle time at USA Games would still need to be 12.14 seconds fast in order to qualify for the Paralympics.
“As far as being a record holder, he wants to work harder and beat his existing American records,” Tim said. “He is always trying to beat his best time in any of the swim events.”
Until 2020, his focus now is to make the U.S. National “B” team, which would make him the first intellectually impaired man to make it on the team. Although he is working very hard, he is enjoying every minute of it.
“Jonny really enjoys working hard in the gym and getting stronger, he says it makes him feel good,” Tim said.